Damascus steel is growing in popularity, which is a great trend for the craftsman. At the same time, unscrupulous manufacturers are taking advantage of the trend to offer cheap knockoffs and poorly made Damascus to inexperienced smiths who don’t know what they’re buying.
This has led to some myths and misunderstandings about Damascus steel.
Some people mistakenly believe that Damascus is prone to cracking, can’t be worked on a lathe because of delamination risks, or that Damascus is just a low quality metal that can’t hold up to serious use.
None of those things are true of real, high quality Damascus and Mokume Gane.
Properly made, real Damascus steel is a craft that takes time and skill to perfect. It’s strong and solid, and good brands rarely delaminate while they’re being worked.
With that in mind, how does one determine whether their purchase is real, quality Damascus steel, or some kind of cheap imitation?
Here’s what to look for:
1: Does The Price Make Sense?
Real Damascus steel is a premium product. The smiths who make it often train for years to build their skills and knowledge, and in order to create the intricate Damascus patterns and maintain the integrity of the finished billet or rod, the entire process is meticulous and involved.
That kind of craftsmanship doesn’t come cheap.
One of the hallmarks of imitation Damascus is the low price. If you find yourself wondering why a billet or rod is so inexpensive, that’s a red flag that you’re not looking at a quality product.
Assuming you’ve already purchased a piece of steel, there are some other things to look for.
2: Check Surface For Cracks or Voids
Before you start working your steel, look closely at the surface for any cracks or voids. If you see gaps or cracks, you’ve got some really poorly made Damascus that will delaminate or break while you’re trying to work it.
It’s pretty hard to tell whether or not a piece of Damascus is bad by looking at the surface, though.
Most of the time, you’ll find out that your Damascus is actually junk while you’re working it.
3: Sand It
Occasionally, a dishonest manufacturer will sell a piece of metal with a design on the surface as Damascus.
Real Damascus steel is made by working different types of steel together, so the pattern is present throughout the entire piece of metal. If the pattern sands off and the metal beneath is solid in color, you’ve been scammed.
This isn’t as common with billets as it is with finished products – most likely, if you buy cheap Damascus billets, they’re just poorly or incorrectly made.
You’ll find out when you:
4: Mill It
Use a manual mill or a CNC mill to machine your Damascus, and the strain those machines put on the metal is sometimes enough to pull apart layers that were poorly fused together.
You wouldn’t get these same kinds of delaminations from a sanding belt because the force is different.
If a certain brand of Damascus delaminates (the layers come apart) while you work it, you might have just had a bad batch. If two or more pieces delaminate, it’s more likely you’re using a bad brand.
That’s why your best bet is:
5: Talk To People Who’ve Used That Brand of Damascus
Our suggestion for smiths and makers is usually to call other craftsmen and ask about their experience with a certain brand.
The world of Damascus steel is pretty small, and we all talk to one another. A forge’s reputation is everything. Use online forums to connect with others and ask people you know personally what they’ve found when working with different brands of steel, and if more than one person has had problems with quality, steer clear.
What happens if you can’t find anybody that’s used a brand?
There are relatively few respected and reputable forges that make real Damascus. If you can’t find anyone that’s used a particular brand, our advice is that you should skip it.